Tag Archives: science journalism

Finding the misery molecule? More like imaging a candidate

Depression, like just about every other mental disease, is a strange and mysterious beast. We’ve reached the stage where most people finally understand that it’s really an illness, really a physical problem, not something can be controlled. We know that there are myriad drugs that can help: citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine…  But we still can’t reach out and touch it. We still can’t predict it. There’s still not a physical test that you can do. An assay that proves that no, this person isn’t just lazy or melancholy or antisocial: they are depressed.

The headlines

Over the weekend, the news outlets got a bit excited at the prospect that scientists had finally discovered “the molecule responsible for causing feelings of depression” (Independent), “the brain’s most miserable molecule” (The Sunday Times) “the little bastard molecule that causes depression” (msn), “The Thing Responsible for Depression” (Jezebel).

And the science

I wish I could say I’m as excited as they are, but of course the science is never as simple as this. The actual paper released is a slog to say the least, and more Physics than Biology, but I’ll give it a go.  Continue reading

Essential response to anti-GM from Mark Lynas

No full length post here, just a suggestion that you all go to read Mark Lynas*’ fantastic deconstruction of various anti-GMO arguments. Obviously none of the arguments mean ‘go grow GM across the world immediately!’ but he gives some lovely detailed responses to the inconsistency in various people’s thinking (e.g. how objecting to Monsanto creating a monopoly on corn should not lead to trashing open source disease tolerant papaya in Africa) and explanations of how environmental groups are doing things that simply aren’t good for the environment.

It’s long, but a very good read.

Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.

This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.

The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.

Full link is here

*Mark Lynas as in the authors of Six Degrees, a pop science book about how the world would change as average global temperature increased by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees etc… It’s basically a huge meta study of primary literature and very enjoyable. Apparently he’s good at writing about GM too – who knew?

Friday Roundup

Here are a few odds and ends that have caught my eye over the last day or two to finish the week with.

The 523Mb draft genome for banana, Musa acuminata, has been released (more on that later) in a paper in Nature by D’Hont et al  and with it this awesome Venn Diagram comparing the genes that are homologous between banana and some other important plants. (Arabidopsis is the model species for all plants – the equivalent of a lab mouse; Brachypodium is the model for grasses; Oryza is rice).

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Exercise doesn’t help with depression: or does it?

“Exercise can help people recover from depression and prevent them from becoming depressed in the first place.” NHS Choices

“Endurance exercise may help to achieve substantial improvement in the mood of selected patients with major depression in a short time.” Knubben et al (2007) Br J Sports Med 2007;41:29–33. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2006.030130

In the last decade, the medical community as a whole has come to appreciate that regular exercise can be a real and effective way to deal with mild depression. The Mental Health Foundation did a survey of English GPs that found 56% of them thought that a programme of exercise was ‘quite effective’ in treating mild to moderate depression.

Plenty of research is being done on the topic: a quick search of the ISI Web of Science search engine (the fastest way to search for academic research papers) for ‘exercise’ and ‘depression’ reveals 22 papers written in 2012 so far that have both words in the title. These vary from neurological assessments of mice in Neuroscience to randomised trials of the effects of yoga in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Most recently, depression and exercise have hit the headlines in the last few days following a study that suggested this link didn’t actually exist.

Exercise doesn’t help, say the headlines

“Exercise doesn’t help depression, study concludes” says the Guardian. The Daily Mail,  Telegraph and Metro all carry similar stories. The study in question, published in the BMJ yesterday, is the first large scale randomised trial of its kind. It looked at the differences between patients on ‘conventional’ treatments alone (i.e. antidepressants or therapy) and those combining drugs with exercise. The results are fairly damning for proponents of physical activity.

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Someone is WRONG on the internet (More on GM…)

This is me this lunch time:

Faced with a day of experiments that don’t require poking every 15 minutes, an inability to order anything due to some delightful fluke of our ordering system, no teaching commitments because my undergrads had their exam this morning, and no social engagements, you might expect that I would be spending a peaceful half hour sat on a polystyrene box outside my office enjoying the sun. (That’s not actually a joke… photos to follow).

Sadly, not.

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A rose by any other name…

Biofortified, a group blog I read sometimes, is carrying a piece today called Crop Plants with DNA Deletions are not GMOs. The piece is largely about exciting new technology used to examine disease resistance in rice. But the title comes from this passage:

Instead of adding a sentence or two to the genome book, as is done by standard genetic modification (GM) approaches, they removed a few letters; the rice varieties they generated lack anywhere from 3 to 57 bases in their genomes (as in the Figure to the right from the Li paper). Thus, the rice plants generated by Li et al. do not contain extraneous DNA and cannot by any reasonable definition be considered “GMOs.”

Figure 1e from Li. The top row is a DNA sequence in the gene that makes wild type rice susceptible to blight. Each of the other rows have deletions (marked by dashed) or additions (red letters) induced by the TAL-nuclease.

Continue reading

An ode to science journalism and science education

I like science.

I like doing science.

But I also like telling people about science.

Many of my colleagues view outreach as something that has to be done in order to tick the box labelled ‘Public Engagement’. It’s a waste of their time, it’s uncomfortable, and nobody cares anyway. Who wants to turn up at a school to do a lunchtime talk only to find that none of the sixth form even come? Who wants to give up their Saturday for a big public engagement event when all anyone is interested in are the ecologists at the next table with the fun game?

I’m at the other end of the spectrum. My PI has specifically warned me that next year (aka The Final Phase) he doesn’t think I should be doing any outreach, and he wants me to give up my in-house teaching commitments (because I do too much at the moment). I love teaching. I love telling people about what I do. And I also love debating about important issues like GMOs or food security or climate change or the links between autism and … well…. everything!

I like talking to interested young people. I like talking to interested old people too. But more than anything I think it’s incredibly important to  talk to uninterested young people. Here in the UK it’s compulsory for students to take a certain level of science until they are 16. Students learn about forces and they learn about the periodic table and they learn about photosynthesis and respiration and food chains.

They rarely learn how to interpret a scientific news article.

And for me, this is where the major problem is. I blame scientists for poor dissemination of their research and I blame the appalling standard of science journalism in this country for a multitude of sins. But I also blame the inability of the general public to read a ‘science’ article and go hang on a second… ? 

Major decisions about public health, food security and the environment are heavily influenced by public opinion, which – while notoriously manipulatable in many fields – is often based far more on empty rhetoric than on any understanding of what is actually going on.

I don’t believe for a moment that scientists should have carte blanche to do whatever they please without some measure of public accountability. But if I hope to achieve anything in my scientific outreach it will be showing 15 year olds just why it’s important that they have science lessons.

And believe me, it’s not so that they’ll know that 6H2O + 6CO2 à C6H12O6 + 6 O2